Woody Shaw (trumpet, maracas) Tyrone Washington (tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, maracas) Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone) Stanley Cowell (piano) Reggie Workman (bass, electric bass) Joe Chambers (drums) recorded Olmstead Sound Studios, NYC, September 25, 1969, produced for Black Lion label by Alan Bates and Chris Whent.
Stanley Cowell’s recording career of forty-five years to date, including founding the ’70s the post-Bop/spiritual jazz label Strata East with trumpeter Charles Tolliver, combining solo and group concert performance and recording with a university teaching role. At latest look, one still with us.
Time for some un-smooth jazz. Musically always interesting to push the boundaries, see if they have moved further out, over time, they usually they have. However, as is customary when faced by more challenging music, LJC opts for a jaunty bopper, the Woody Shaw composition, Boo Ann’s Grand – a tune given a more straight-ahead reading two years previously by Jackie McLean (with Woody) on his 1967 album Demon’s Dance .
Brilliant Circles one of two albums in Cowell’s 1969 debut as leader, alongside the more provocatively titled album Blues For The Viet Cong (Cowell presumably mislaid his draft card). Jazz poised half way between hard bop and the avant-garde: intellectually more challenging and interesting listening than some directions being taken by jazz at the end of the ’60s, elsewhere heading for electric prog-jazz-rock-fusion and funk (cue, howls of protest)
The sextet format gives Cowell a rich instrumental palette to work with: Woody Shaw’s bright trumpet, Hutcherson’s coolly abstract vibraphone infusion, Tyrone Washington’s gritty buzz-saw tenor, resting on supple rhythmic foundations of Workman and Chambers, melodic directions shifting between modal post-bop and “out there” avant-garde, loose and less predictable.
Tyrone Washington is a curiosity. His tenor appears on the last official Blue Note BLP 4250 Horace Silver’s under-rated gem The Jody Grind, and he led his own Liberty/Blue Note album BLP 4274 Natural Essence, with largely the same players but Kenny Barron on piano. On the brink of a promising bop/avant career, Washington disappeared from the music scene altogether in the mid ’70s , and never recorded again.
Later recordings saw Stanley Cowell turn to the electric piano, often partnered with more electric instruments, which (for me) lack the purity of the fully acoustic ensemble. This early album falls neatly into the vinyl audiophile modern jazz listen-up! circle, but there are no doubt other titles in Cowell’s large discography worthy of attention. Problem is, I don’t know what they are. Suggestions?
Vinyl: Cover Art on Trial
Allegations of similarity between the US release cover of Cowell’s Brilliant Circles and Herbie Hancock’s Thrust have been made but are clearly misplaced. For a start, Cowell is facing left, while Hancock is facing right, couldn’t be more different, fundamentally opposite directions. Any other likeness, such as the use of a space theme and space bubble, can be dismissed as mere coincidence. And while Thrust is largely purple in hue, Brilliant Circles contains, umm.. much more green. So, not at all similar, the appellant’s claim of plagiarism is dismissed.
I prefer the funky Cowell US cover to the more cerebral solarised photography of the European edition. In today’s world of Photoshop special effects, effects are not so special any more.
The Hancock design is aptly more funky, but Cowell wins on points for artfully blending of real-life Cowell with unreal space painting. Hancock is comic-strip art, Cowell takes a leaf out of Sun Ra, and is playing, not posing like for a selfie. The Hancock Thrust cover depends on the illustrator’s art for all elements, homogenous, but not quite as ” visually playful”. I declare Cowell the cover winner.
Then there is the more “serious” Black Lion cover which loses points for failing to design-in any visual cross-reference to the album title, like how the spacey cover neatly counterpoints several circular design elements within a square frame. Nothing either brilliant or at all circular about the Black Lion. Worthy but dull.
Cowell’s intellectual credentials are underlined by a learned gatefold with bonus photo and liner notes. That’s put it up a notch.
Found in a flea-market record stall in the corner of a North Italian seaside town, no-one more surprised than me to see it, entirely out of its time and place, snuggling between cheesy 70’s and ’80s pop records.